MANILA -- They are known as the overseas Chinese: descendants of poor migrants who came from the Chinese mainland more than a century ago to work as retail traders or laborers building the bridges and railroads in the former British, Dutch and American colonies throughout Southeast Asia.

Today, they are the region's wealthiest and most powerful business tycoons, with many of their once-small and tightly knit family businesses ranking among the world's largest corporate conglomerates.

For their perceived economic clout and business acumen and the discrimination they have suffered from indigenous populations, the Chinese of this region have been described, sometimes derisively, as "the Jews of Asia" in numerous Asian writings comparing them to the Jews of old Europe.

"The term came partly because of the discrimination against us and partly because of our success in business," explained Teresita Ang See, a Filipino-Chinese professor here.

Despite their small numbers, ethnic Chinese are estimated to control more than 40 percent of the corporate economy in the Philippines; they own half the private assets in Indonesia, and they account for the bulk of private economic activity in Malaysia, despite discriminatory laws aimed at limiting their clout. Even in fiercely nationalistic Thailand, most of the corporate economy is owned by large, family-based Sino-Thai groups.

With closely woven connections of friendship and kinship, overseas Chinese from the Philippines to Indonesia to Vietnam have fueled their business expansion through their easy access to financial capital from the region's powerful Chinese-owned banks of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Various governments have pointed to these outside financial connections in accusing the overseas Chinese of virtually controlling the black market rate of local currencies. In Ho Chi Minh City last year, Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a western-educated government economist, blamed the country's unfavorable exchange rate "on currency speculation, and most of it is centered in Chinatown." In a Philippine daily newspaper, Malaya, columnist Jake Macasaet regularly accuses the Chinese of "black marketeering" and currency speculation to erode the value of the peso.

The economic power of the ethnic Chinese -- part real and part exaggerated -- has often generated resentment from native populations. This has led to anti-Chinese race riots, laws barring Chinese from certain professions and measures aimed at forcing their assimilation by wiping out their unique culture. Governments have restricted the use of the Chinese language, closed Chinese-run schools and, in Malaysia, banned the traditional Chinese "dragon dance."

The overseas Chinese also have been viewed with suspicion as a "fifth column" of the communist People's Republic of China, particularly in the staunchly anticommunist governments of Southeast Asia, which in the 1960s and 1970s were battling communist insurgencies backed by Beijing. In Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, the communist insurgencies were, for the most part, spearheaded by ethnic Chinese.

In Vietnam, China, on the northern border, remains the principal security concern, and officials in Hanoi have used the ethnic Chinese as pawns in their political confrontation with Beijing. The vast majority of the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s were ethnic Chinese from Cholon, the Chinatown of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Many of them were encouraged to leave by the government.

Questions about the loyalty and patriotism of overseas Chinese have led to laws in almost every Southeast Asian country either restricting their right to become citizens or forcing them to adopt citizenship or risk expulsion. In many countries, overseas Chinese took local names as a way to lower their profiles. Indonesia's top trader is Sudono Salim, an ethnic Chinese whose real name is Liem Sioe Liong.

"The fear of the overseas Chinese is a myth," said Prof. Paul Chan, a Malaysian economist, in a recent interview. "But it's a good myth to be perpetrated because it gives governments an excuse to enact certain types of laws."

Restrictions and occasional outbursts of anti-Chinese popular sentiment persist:In Indonesia, travelers entering Jakarta's international airport are prohibited from bringing in printed material with Chinese characters. Authorities routinely use black ink to blot over Chinese characters appearing in advertisements in international magazines, such as Newsweek. Last year, Jakarta city governor Wiyogo Atmodarminto ordered all signs bearing Chinese characters replaced with Indonesian-language signs.

Last year, when a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official was asked about Singapore's secret trade with Vietnam, the official replied: "Well, you know the Singaporeans are Chinese, and the Chinese are very clever."In Malaysia, where ethnic Chinese and Malays coexist in a precarious racial balance, the constitution preserves special rights and status for indigenous Malays. The Malay-dominated government has enacted a series of social and economic measures that discriminate against Chinese, restricting their admission to the nation's universities and to the civil service, while trying to limit Chinese participation in business.

Government economic activity, particularly in banking, has given indigenous Malays greater control over the economy as a whole, but the private economy is still almost exclusively Chinese. According to government statistics, ethnic Chinese held 56 percent of corporate equity in 1985, with foreigners holding another 26 percent.

Lately, racial tensions have flared as the government has taken steps to erode Chinese culture further, such as forcing the Chinese to speak Malay. Many of those arrested during Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed's crackdown on dissent last September were prominent ethnic Chinese politicians and academics, such as Prof. Kua Kia Soong, who had campaigned against government restrictions on Chinese education.

In Thailand, the ethnic Chinese generally have been well integrated into Thai society, but the process of assimilation often was forced by extreme nationalist policies, such as the closure of Chinese schools after World War II. According to a recent survey of the ethnic Chinese in Thailand that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the elite military academy still requires cadets to have "Thai ethnicity."

In the Philippines, integration has come more naturally, partly because of the historical intermingling between Chinese and the Spanish-blood mestizo, or mixed-blood, elite. President Corazon Aquino and the archbiship of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin, are among the prominent Filipinos of Chinese descent.

But even here there are anti-Chinese undercurrents. During a small demonstration in Angeles City last May, printed leaflets blamed Chinese merchants for increases in the price of lumber, cement and basic foodstocks. In January, during local elections, an anonymous leaflet declared, "The Philippines is ours -- do not give it to the Chinese!" and it urged Filipinos to vote against 12 Chinese-surnamed candidates listed.

According to U.S. census and State Department figures, ethnic Chinese make up 1.5 percent of the population in the Philippines, 2 to 3 percent of Indonesia's population, about 14 percent of the population in Thailand and 32 percent of the population in Malaysia. Singapore, with a population of 2.6 million, is 76 percent Chinese. Officials there say privately that they feel vulnerable to anti-Chinese sentiment from the larger countries, predominantly Moslem and ethnic Malay, that surround them. As a result of those fears, Singapore has the region's best-equipped armed forces.

Despite the restrictions and continuing racism in the region, the overseas Chinese have continued to prosper, leading the economic development boom in much of Southeast Asia. They make up the key sector in the Philippines that is showing economic dynamism and providing new investment that could spark an economic turnaround.

"One thing the ASEAN countries can exploit is the marketing network of the overseas Chinese," said Teresita Ang See, the Filipino-Chinese professor of Chinese studies. "If they want to develop this region, they have to exploit this."

Later this month, the Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce will send a delegation to five Southeast Asian countries specifically to encourage their Chinese counterparts to invest in the Philippines. They will be taking copies of the Philippines' investment regulations specially printed in Chinese.

The dominant position of the Chinese in the economy accounts at least partly for the reluctance of governments in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta to reduce public sector involvement in the economy and liberalize their systems.

In Indonesia, for example, ethnic Chinese account for only about 2 or 3 percent of the population but control 50 percent of the private assets, according to one World Bank official. "The real dynamic sector of the economy is the Chinese community," this official said. "To encourage the private sector is to encourage this already economically powerful {group}, and that creates political problems for the government."

Indonesia provides an example of how -- despite official rhetoric and discrimination against them -- overseas Chinese often have prospered with the protection of government officials who use anti-Chinese rhetoric to play to nationalist sentiments. Ethnic Chinese act as middlemen for officials, much as has Liem Sioe Liong, considered the wealthiest trader in Southeast Asia. Liem established lucrative monopolies over clove imports, rice milling, flour, textiles and cements, mainly by acting as the middleman of President Suharto and his close relatives.

In Malaysia, where the Malay government has adopted a series of "affirmative action" measures aimed at increasing the hold of indigenous Malays on the economy, the Chinese still have managed to thrive with official blessing. For example, government construction contracts by law must go to Malay firms. Routinely, however, a Malay front company, often owned by government officials or their relatives, will win a contract and subcontract the work to another firm owned by ethnic Chinese. Such arrangements are jokingly referred to as "Ali-Baba" industries, "baba" being the Malay word for Chinese. A saying goes, "Ali gets the contract, but Baba does the work."

With Malaysia trying to sustain its growth during a worldwide economic slowdown, pressure is mounting for the government to scrap its pro-Malay affirmative action program, which is seen by many economists as inhibiting growth. But the ethnic Malay government is unlikely to do so, because unleashing the private sector would almost certainly mean a return to economic dominance of the ethnic Chinese.

"If you want this economy to grow, you have to free people to work hard and use their brainpower," said one economist in Kuala Lumpur. "But we are not in a position to tap half the brainpower of this country -- the Chinese half."

The Chinese did not come to Southeast Asia from elite positions in China. Most came to the region's European colonies from the southern and coastal provinces, many as indentured laborers.

"These were people who were not in the mainstream of Chinese civilization," Chan said. "They were not of the Mandarin class, the ruling class. They were on the periphery."

As immigrants historically have done, the overseas Chinese survived and made money through hard work and thrift. They were largely concentrated in the trading professions as a result of colonialist policies that sought to keep indigenous populations on agricultural estates. After the Southeast Asian countries won independence following World War II, many of the region's ethnic Chinese remained in business because laws of the fiercely nationalistic new governments prohibited these "noncitizens" from entering professions like medicine and law.

With the emergence of the overseas Chinese as the most economically powerful group in the region, some academics, diplomats and others are predicting that many Chinese will migrate away from the racial tension and political strife of Southeast Asia to Australia, Canada and the United States.

With ethnic tension haunting Malaysia and the communist government in Beijing poised to take over the British colony of Hong Kong in 1997, some signs of a new migration have emerged. Ethnic Chinese are filing more visa applications and making more investments in western countries. Increasingly, they send their children to study in U.S., Australian and Canadian universities, and many of those students stay in those countries.

"The first generation came here, but now the second generation can do even better," said Teresita Ang See. "They send back foreign exchange, technology and expertise. The first generation had a tie with China, so when they made money, they sent it back to China. The second generation will send it back here, to Southeast Asia. . . . It's a positive development for the region."